George Sand (1804–1876) and Marie d’Agoult (1805–1876) have been for a century and a half objects of curiosity more for their colorful lives than for their writings. Rebellious spirits, they were thorns in an age which preferred women to be roses or, better still, lilies. They were born into well-to-do families and made, by contemporary standards, good marriages, but before they were thirty, they had turned their backs on respectability. Sand made a point of smoking cigars, cigarettes, and a hookah, wore men’s clothes, had a sexually adventurous life of which she made no secret, and wrote novels containing thoughts and images that were seen as shocking, not suitable for reading by the young and innocent. Marie d’Agoult caused a scandal in 1835 by eloping with Franz Liszt and bore him three children (one of whom, Cosima, married Richard Wagner and became his muse). But neither Sand nor d’Agoult was content with notoriety. During writing careers that spanned forty years, both advocated extending the freedoms they claimed for themselves to all of the citizens, male and female, of the liberal, democratic republic they hoped would one day be established in France.
They were almost exact contemporaries and followed parallel trajectories. In the 1830s, they lived out the ideas of Romanticism more completely than the poets and novelists who have always overshadowed them. Victor Hugo lived like a bourgeois, Balzac worried constantly about money, Musset escaped into self-indulgence, and Vigny withdrew to his family château. Sand and Marie committed themselves to Art and Genius. After 1840, their liberal opinions acquired a harder intellectual and political edge and, through revolutions and upheavals, both kept up their attack on the conservative establishment through their novels, journalism, and essays.
Their latest biographers make no great claims for their literary achievements. Richard Bolster judges Marie’s fiction to be unsubtle and Phyllis Stock-Morton regrets that she did not give up writing novels after her first feeble attempts. Belinda Jack draws on Sand’s books not to recommend their aesthetic merits but as evidence of her reactions to events and insights into her attitudes. If Art, as Yeats said, is what we make out of the quarrel we have with ourselves, then both Sand and Marie had a lesser argument, addressed to others and to society. Marie lacked the imaginative ability to transmute the wrongs done to her into literary form and Sand never broke free of the sentimentality, preachy idealism, and melodrama that make even her rustic novels, so popular in her day, seem stagy and contrived. As Belinda Jack points out, admirers of Sand, such as Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and Colette, have been drawn less to her fiction than to her struggles and her personality. For Richard Bolster, it is Marie’s courage and tenacity that compel respect, and while Professor Stock-Morton is an admirable guide to her ideas and political activities, she too places her emphasis on Marie’s analysis of her own experience. Both Sand and Marie left personal accounts, the first in the History of My Life (1854) and the second in her unfinished Souvenirs (1877 and 1927). If George Sand and Marie d’Agoult still live, they are to be found in their autobiographies, into which they put their greatest creation, themselves.
Temperamentally they were very different. Sand dealt energetically with life, relishing challenges and pushing impetuously at closed doors. She never claimed to be a beauty (“I had merely the bloom of youth,” she wrote in her autobiography) yet she was loved by many men. Musset called her the most womanly woman he had ever known. Marie was tall, blonde, and beautiful, much more attractive but less seductive. Her natural reserve, compounded by a patrician dignity, made her vulnerable and she was plagued at intervals by depression and self-doubt. While their status as outsiders brought them together for a moment in the late 1830s, they did not remain close friends for long. Where they overlapped was in their defiance of convention and their determination to live up to their ideas.
Their offense was to free themselves from what men had decided was woman’s duty. They reclaimed their lives in an overheated, poetic age when Romantic writers proclaimed liberal ideas but kept women in their place. In progressive circles, Free Love was the rage—free to men, that is, for women found that it exacted a heavy price. By the late 1820s, the new female fashions said it all. The plain Empire line was replaced by tight corsets which emphasized waists and rumps and contained women no less strictly than Napoleon’s legal code, which gave them equal rights with minors and mad persons and placed them under the permanent tutelage of men. At the height of her fame, George Sand still needed the authorization of her estranged husband before she could seek redress at law against a restrictive publishing practice that was none of his business.
But the woman question had at least become a major topic of the 1830s. In the eighteenth century, Lord Chesterfield had judged women to be children grown large. At the end of the nineteenth, Schopenhauer still defined them as creatures with long hair and short ideas. While most women had little alternative but to accept the terms of their social contract, they did not all go quietly. The Revolution of 1789 gave rights to men; Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe des Gouges demanded rights for women too. Mme. de Staël, one of the century’s founding figures, dared to defy Napoleon, no friend to women and in her eyes a military dictator, by promoting subversive, liberal ideas. Some made the most of the limitations imposed on them. Madame Récamier had the gift of making friends with men who passionately admired her. Louise Colet became mistress to influential men who she thought would help her make her career in writing. Others shrugged and took the traditional path. As professional lovers of men they could free themselves from economic slavery, acquire notoriety (as did Lola Montès) and even achieve respectability.
After the Revolution of 1830, which promised freedoms for all but delivered bourgeois conformity, women mounted a vigorous campaign rooted in the egalitarian principles of 1789. They were encouraged by the disciples of Saint-Simon and Fourier, who included the subjugation of women in the list of injustices to be redressed. There was a flourishing woman’s press which crossed the social divide. Suzanne Voilquin, a working-class journalist, proposed alternatives to patriarchy, and Flora Tristan, daughter of an aristocrat, chronicled the lives of the poor and demanded female rights, fair wages, nurseries for babies, and state-funded hospitals. In 1848, the year of revolutions, women’s political clubs flourished briefly, and in 1849 Jeanne Deroin dared to stand as a parliamentary candidate. She was disqualified because she was a woman.
When they were young Sand and d’Agoult rebelled not on principle but to escape their stifling lives and constricting marriages. It was only after they had put conventional marriage behind them that they began to generalize from their experience, and even then they were not militants in demanding women’s liberation. For both, female emancipation was a long-term process, to be achieved gradually through social reform and education, not through violence and revolutionary change. They did not demand equality with men and this, for Professor Stock-Morton, casts them only as proto-feminists. Yet their ideas and, no less important, their uninhibited actions had far-reaching effects on masculine attitudes.
George Sand was born Aurore Dupin in Paris. Through her father, Maurice Dupin de Francueil, she was descended, as a result of two illegitimacies, from the King of Poland and the Maréchal de Saxe and was cousin to three Bourbon kings, though the family’s tarnished escutcheon had long made its members unwelcome at court. In contrast, her mother, Sophie-Victoire Delaborde, was a former dancer with a murky past who caught Maurice’s eye and married him in 1804. His mother, Marie-Aurore Dupin, was not told in advance about the marriage and she was persuaded to accept the newborn Aurore only after the baby was first introduced to her as the granddaughter of her concierge.
After Maurice died in a riding accident in 1808, Aurore became the center of the lives of the two women. They lived on a handsome estate at Nohant in the Berry, some three hundred kilometers southwest of Paris, which Mme. Dupin, a woman of considerable intelligence and resourcefulness, had bought in 1793. Whereas she was patient and rational, Sophie-Victoire was fey and imaginative but also manipulative and unstable. In 1809, Mme. Dupin sent her away and allowed Aurore to see her mother for limited periods only. She oversaw her granddaughter’s education, though not with the success she hoped for, and in 1818 sent her to a convent in Paris, where she made friends and was happy. She also found spiritual ecstasy and almost acquired a vocation. In 1820, her free-thinking grandmother took her back to Nohant, where she read voraciously and, encouraged by her risk-taking Hussar half-brother Hippolyte, rode in men’s clothes and swam in the river Indre. For her mother she felt only a secret dread, but she grew to admire her clear-minded grandmother, who would prove a major influence on her attitudes.
Mme. Dupin died before a husband could be found for Aurore. Now a substantial heiress, she lived with her impossible mother in Paris until, largely to escape, she married a minor aristocrat in 1822. Casimir Dudevant, nine years her senior and a baron, refused to be turned into a great Romantic love, nor was Aurore cut out to be a meek, adoring wife. Her son, Maurice, born in 1823, was not enough to occupy her. She formed innocent friendships with young people but was, perhaps, bolder with Stéphane de Grandsagne, who shared her liberal opinions and may have been the father of her daughter, Solange, born in 1828. By sidelining Casimir and claiming her independence to read and write, life at Nohant was made tolerable for them both. Between 1827 and 1831, she finished a number of short works in which she tried to find her own voice and style, but published nothing.
As Belinda Jack makes clear, 1830 was the major turning point in her life. The liberal hopes which she had invested in the July Revolution were quickly dashed by the new regime and she fell passionately in love with Jules Sandeau, a student. Casimir was predictably angry but she won the argument with him. The result was an agreement by which he would remain at Nohant and pay her a small allowance that would enable her to live half the year in Paris. She left in January 1831 and moved in with Sandeau.
She felt immediately at home in the new bohemian setting. She dressed like a man, smoked, and wore hobnailed boots, which took on a special meaning for her. She later wrote:
I can’t describe how delighted I was by my boots; I would willingly have slept with them, as my brother did when he was very little, when he was given his first pair. With their little metal heels I was firmly grounded on the pavement. I flew from one end of Paris to the other. I felt I could have gone round the world. There was nothing to harm my clothes and I went out in all weathers, I came home at all hours, I went to the stalls of all the theatres. No one took any notice of me or questioned my outfit. Apart from the fact that I wore it well, the absence of any style in my clothes or coquettishness in my physiognomy discouraged any suspicion. I was too badly dressed, and my look too simple (my habitual look, preoccupied and unashamedly stupid) to attract or sustain anyone’s interest…. Not to be noticed as a man, one has first to be used to being noticed as a woman.
She overspent her allowance and to earn money tried her hand at painting (her son Maurice would inherit her considerable artistic skills). She completed a novel which found no publisher, but gained a foothold at Le Figaro, which had only recently started. It was not just the beginning of her long involvement with journalism but her initiation into the realities of publishing. The public wanted strongly colored accounts of contemporary life: she would provide strong colors. The high-minded spiritual values she had advocated in her unpublishable novel were now scorned as unreal: since she felt independent, independence would be her morality. With Sandeau, she wrote two novels, of which Rose et Blanche (1831), signed J. Sand, proved marketable. But Aurore knew it was worthless. Indiana was hers alone. Published in 1832 under the name of George Sand, it made her famous.
It was, despite her later denials, a version of her own liberation. After the highly convenient death of her husband and her disillusionment with the wooden Raymon, Indiana sails away to the island of Réunion to live a life of chaste and charitable bliss with her cousin. Despite the melodrama and a highly implausible ending, Sand’s exposure of marriage as a prison for women and her idealistic account of Indiana’s bid for independence won her many readers. Valentine, published the same year, went further by allowing its heroine to love, in a no less highly charged and improbable tale, a man who was her social inferior.
Sand was approached by Saint-Simonians who hoped to enlist her in their campaign for Free Love, but she rejected their overtures because, as Jack rightly says, her theme was liberation from wider tyrannies of class and from economic and political injustice. She now proceeded to practice her libertarian creed. She dropped Sandeau, who could not keep up with her artistically or sexually, returned to Nohant and the children whenever she pleased, and, in 1833, began affairs with Marie Dorval, the leading actress of the day (January), Mérimée (April), and, in June, with Musset, whom she followed to Italy. Her experiences went into the hybrid Lélia (1833), part novel, part prose-poem, which dealt with morality and sex with a frankness that made her the most intriguing and outrageous woman in Paris. Central to the character of Lélia are her ambivalent feelings about her lover:
Lélia remembered when she had loved him most. It was when he was poet rather than lover. In those first days of their affections, Sténo’s passion had a romantic, angelic quality…. Later his eyes would grow animated with a more virile fire. His greedy lips would seek and demand kisses. His poetry would express more savage outbursts of feeling. Then the impotent Lélia had felt frightened, fatigued, and almost disgusted with this love she did not share.
By 1835, after she broke with Musset and sought a separation from Casimir, she was calling for the reintroduction of divorce and arguing for the reform of female education. She managed on little sleep, wrote quickly, earned and spent large sums of money, and began and ended new affairs. In 1836, she met Chopin. She had been with him for two years when, accompanied by her two children, she spent the miserable winter of 1838 with him on Majorca, where she ran the house, organized their affairs, and nursed her consumptive lover. She was by now fully in charge of her life and relished the challenge. She managed Nohant, her children, and her literary, financial, and legal affairs with brisk efficiency and, when money ran short, published her way back to solvency. In the 1840s, she began writing for the theater, which was more lucrative, but she also produced a stream of idealistic, utopian, socialist, and regionalist novels which were more overtly reformist and republican. Often improbable and, in pastoral mode, feyly sentimental, they expressed her democratic ideals, which were sorely tested in 1848, when Paris rose up against the bourgeois monarchy.
She loathed the violence, denounced the extreme revolutionaries as anti-libertarian, and angrily refused to let her name go forward as either a radical or feminist candidate in the spring election. Disillusioned with politics and losing faith in mass action, she continued the struggle in newspapers, novels, and plays, scrutinizing the repressive Second Empire, offering moral support to the Italian republicans, expressing fiercely anticlerical attitudes, and promoting her ideal of a democratic state and a liberated, educated population. Dismayed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, she welcomed the proclamation of the Republic in 1870 but her reaction to the bloodbath of the Commune of 1871 led her to pacifist attitudes consistent with her lifelong opposition to violence and oppression.
After the series of lovers she had taken after breaking with Chopin in 1846, she settled into a steady domestic routine at Nohant with the sculptor Alexandre Manceau, which lasted from 1850 until his death in 1864. Belinda Jack describes a life centered around family crises, amateur theatricals, managing the estate, a disciplined writing schedule, and meetings and correspondence with leading literary intellectuals, especially with Flaubert, who admired her greatly. She continued to publish books, to provoke the bien pensant public, and, in her private life, to try to improve, with mixed success, her relationships with her children. At seventy, she was still a strong literary and intellectual presence with an expanding international reputation. When she died in 1876, her funeral was attended by Ernest Renan, Dumas fils, Flaubert, and a crowd of local people who had nothing but fond memories of the Good Lady of Nohant.
She was not universally revered, however. Her iconoclasm offended several regimes and her eighty novels, twenty plays, and numerous essays and collected pieces did not captivate everyone. Baudelaire considered her a “latrine.” The excesses of her life and books, he thought, identified her with the physical, animal self which the true writer transcends through art. Nietzsche described her as a “lactating cow,” symbol of the most infantile excesses of Romanticism and defender of the indefensible, female emancipation. Against them, Elizabeth Barrett Browning called her a “large-brained woman and great-hearted man,” “the finest female genius of any country or age,” and her opinion was clearly shared by Sand’s vast readership.
Between these extremes of hostility and adulation many remained undecided, a reaction articulated as early as 1835 by Fanny Trollope in her trenchantly observed Paris and the Parisians. Sand, she wrote, “had clearly been bruised and stained by association with the distempered spirits of the day, and her scenes of unchaste love and of hard indifference to decorum were hardly suitable for respectable readers.” Yet Trollope confessed to admiring the Sand who, she wrote, “throws the reins upon the neck of her own Pegasus and starts away into the bright region of unsoiled thoughts.” Surely, she said, even the sternest guardian of public morals could not set her aside without a sigh.
But it was not only her books that made enemies. When Casimir applied for the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in recognition of his long years of service as the husband of the scandalous George Sand, other casualties of intimate relations with her shared his sentiments. Her numerous affairs did not always end amicably and her habit of using her life as the raw material for her fiction alienated many of those with whom she had once had close relations. One who had good cause to feel aggrieved was Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult, who also had the courage to defy opinion and lead her own life.
She was born Marie de Flavigny in Frankfurt in 1805. Her father was a French aristocrat and her mother the daughter of a Protestant banking family enriched by the European wars. In 1809, Flavigny returned to France and bought an estate near Tours, where Marie was brought up speaking French and German and acquired the social graces required of a girl of her rank. In 1821 she was sent to a convent school in Paris where, like Sand, she became excessively pious. Her mother, fearing the worst, removed her and began grooming her for marriage. She caught the eye of the poet Vigny, who was too poor to ask for her hand, and a diplomat who, fearing a refusal, never proposed.
Marie brooded and read Romantic poets and novelists until, wearily submitting to family pressures, she married the well-connected Charles, Comte d’Agoult, in 1826. She was presented at court and took her place in the royal circle until the Revolution of 1830 destroyed her world. Her husband retired from the army rather than serve the upstart Louis-Philippe, and Marie found country life with him, even with two daughters, emotionally stifling. She sought consolation in religion but her reading only widened the gap between faith, for which she longed, and reason, which she could not ignore. In 1832, she was first treated for the depression that would plague her throughout her life. She recovered and opened a Paris salon where writers and critics such as Sainte-Beuve discussed books and ideas, and heard the new music of Berlioz and Schubert. She had quietly separated from her husband and enjoyed her new role as literary patroness. Yet Stock-Morton quotes Sainte-Beuve as saying she was “six feet of snow over twenty feet of lava.”
The snow melted in December 1832 when she met Franz Liszt, six years her junior. She was dazzled by his genius and the intellectual possibilities he opened for her. During the furtive affair that followed, Marie found a purpose in life. She would be Liszt’s muse. Under her guidance, the energy he spent performing would be channeled into composition, the only lasting expression of his superior talent. If a woman could not achieve greatness, she could at least live in its glow.
In May 1835, Marie became pregnant, and a decision to appear openly as his lover could no longer be postponed. In June, she eloped with Liszt to Switzerland and put herself outside conventional society. For a while, they were happy. She wrote her first articles for Paris musical journals, which published them under Liszt’s name, and she opened a modest salon in Geneva. But Liszt was too much of a performer to settle for domestic routine and a life of composition. During a Paris tour, he met Sand, who began to correspond with Marie, who warmed to both her liberal ideas and her views on marriage. But when they were together in Switzerland in 1836, Marie was disconcerted by Sand’s boisterous behavior and tasteless, often crude conversation. Placed side by side, one acquaintance noted, they were grace and strength: Marie was drawn to reflection and ideas and Sand to spontaneity and genius. Marie saw her new friend in Paris and at Nohant, confiding in her and sharing bold views.
In 1837, Marie and Liszt set out for Italy to pursue a life of emancipation, love, and art. But the dream was impossible to sustain. Though they did not allow their duties as parents of three children to cramp their lives, the old tensions resurfaced between Liszt’s life as a performer and her desire for attention, and in 1839 they agreed to a temporary separation. Marie returned to Paris, where she found that she had been betrayed by Sand. Sand’s novel La Dernière Aldini (1837) featured an artist who is warned against marrying his aristocratic muse, who would smother his talent and demand his gratitude; the implication was clear. Moreover, Sand had repeated confidential details of Marie’s life with Liszt to Balzac, who used them, thinly disguised, in Béatrix (1839).
Marie was too well bred to seek a confrontation or revenge, even when she was again somewhat icily portrayed, as Mme. de Chailly, in Sand’s Horace (1842). Thereafter contact was distant and infrequent, and Marie’s attempt to renew their friendship in 1850 met with a cool reception. For Belinda Jack, Marie’s reaction was exaggerated and based on unfounded jealousy of Sand’s platonic relationship with Liszt. Both Bolster and Stock-Morton insist that Marie was deeply hurt by Sand’s behavior. There is no contradiction here, rather a confirmation of the constitutional differences separating the resilient Sand from the easily bruised Marie.
After 1840, Marie, still beautiful, attracted admirers to her salon. But promiscuity offended her aristocratic sense of herself, and Liszt, who grew more and more distant, was in any case irreplaceable. The newspaper baron Émile de Girardin encouraged her to write and opened doors for “Daniel Stern,” the nom de plume she adopted for her journalism and stolid autobiographical fictions. But if Marie lacked Sand’s creative gifts, her mind was more analytical, better stocked, and more receptive to the advanced German ideas which she did much to publicize. Her Essay on Freedom (1847) defined her concept of a liberal, democratic republic based on justice in which women, educated and emancipated, would participate fully. Women, she said, through no fault of their own, had the vices of slaves and the faults of children, and coquetry was their only means of self-defense. It was a calmly reasoned, eloquent plea for reform at a moment when more heated voices clamored for revolution.
Marie shared Sand’s view that the violence and extremism of 1848 were not the way forward. Politics, she said, consists of leading people to your house while persuading them that you are going to theirs. Her graphic history of the 1848 revolution, published between 1850 and 1853, was well received and offered some compensation for her beleaguered private life. Her husband remained unusually tolerant, but she was estranged from her brother and Liszt constantly undermined her influence with the children. Her depression returned at intervals and she had moments of despair, even thoughts of suicide. Still, in the 1850s, her salon was a center for republican and positivist ideas and, in the following decade, of intellectual opposition to Napoleon III.
She welcomed the birth of the Third Republic in 1870, but feared the forces released by the Commune and the reactionary influence of the royalists and the Church. Her anticlericalism resurfaced in her study of the growth of the Dutch Republic, which won the French Academy’s prize in 1873. It was not, said Barbey d’Aurevilly, a fit subject for women, who should confine themselves to making jam or, at most, writing novels. Marie ignored this jibe and continued working to the end, which came, suddenly, in 1876, before she completed her memoirs. She had survived her husband, her brother, and three of her five children. Her coffin was followed by literary luminaries including Renan, the famous lexicographer Émile Littré, and Girardin. When Liszt heard that she was dead, he greeted the news with an ungracious comment. There is no evidence that Sand, who survived her by three months, reacted at all.
But neither is there evidence for thinking of the self-sufficient Sand as being less admirable than the thinner-skinned Marie. If both had quali-ties, they also had faults, as their biographers freely admit. For Bolster, Marie was less tender and emotional than many other independent-minded women. Stock-Morton is impressed by her intelligence but is critical of her stiff-backed pride. Jack is not always inclined to defend Sand’s volatile impulses. Yet all three biographers find their frailties understandable. If they can seem more ruthlessly concerned with their own liberation than genuinely liberal, such were the terms of their survival in an age of men. Both sought influence and acclaim, but only as a substitute for the power which all women were denied.
On occasion, in the three books under review, they are made to seem like swans able to swim in muddy waters without any of the dirt sticking to their plumage. This apologetic emphasis, however, is helpful rather than obtrusive, for it corrects a number of misconceptions. Sand was far more than her popular image as a man-hungry, cigar-smoking cross-dresser and Marie did more with her life than elope with Liszt. Biography, Jack argues, must not only deal with the facts but must draw on instincts, intuitions, and convictions of the biographer. Her portrait of George Sand is sharply observant and judicious, but her commitment to Sand as an inspirational figure is never in doubt. Stock-Morton’s book is conceived as a chapter in the history of militant feminism, a history in which, in her view, most biographies of women in the past need to be rewritten, and she resurrects Marie as an unjustly neglected intellectual figure. Bolster offers no theoretical justification for his approach but he, too, has made choices. While Stock-Morton concentrates on d’Agoult’s ideas, he provides a detailed and absorbing picture of her life and times.
What emerges from these distinctive but complementary biographies is the magnetic and many-sided attraction of two very different but equally strong personalities. For Bolster, d’Agoult is commendable for her courage, independence, and tenacity. For Stock-Morton, it is her civilized mind that makes her interesting. For Jack, Sand’s attraction as a modern woman lies less in her feminism or socialism and more in her acceptance of freewheeling ideas and her belief that the object of life is to live fully and intensely. D’Agoult and Sand, each according to their lights, made a mark on their society, and these new portraits of them can be read as fables for our own time.
April 26, 2001